There's no clear code of behavior for a symphonic concert of Grateful Dead music, it being something that doesn't happen all that often.
And so on Tuesday night at Heinz Hall, a packed crowd of people wearing everything from suits to tie-dyes was forced to find some kind of middle ground.
This was opening night of Warren Haynes' A Symphonic Celebration of Jerry Garcia and it started as timidly and delicately as possible with a "Dark Star" intro into "Bird Song." As promised, there were parts right away where the orchestra, in white, dropped out to let Haynes improvise on the melody with his rhythm section of drummer Jeff Sipe and bassist Lincoln Schleifer.
The Allman Brothers/Gov't Mule member, who has been singing Garcia's parts for years with Phil Lesh & Friends and the Dead, and he does a pretty close approximation of Jerry's voice -- with a little touch of Southern soul. Jumping in tastefully and powerfully were back-up singers Alecia Chakour (Warren Haynes Band) and Jasmine Muhammad (Pittsburgh Opera).
When the song ended and the crowd roared its approval you could see a quick smile of relief flash across Mr. Haynes' normally stoic face.
With the opening of the third song, "Scarlet Begonias," the ice was broken and a few dancers got up, including a lovely young Deadhead in a long skirt who twirled so gracefully in the aisles the rest of the show that no one seemed to mind.
For "Scarlet" and the funky "Shakedown Street," it was suddenly a rock show with orchestral backing, under the baton of PSO assistant conductor Fawzi Haimor. During "China Cat Sunflower," I heard someone say "sounds like Disney," and at times, there was that feathery quality to the arrangements, for better or worse.
The Dead never had much use for orchestras as it's pretty hard for that many people to rock or lock into funky grooves. "Uncle John's Band," generally a monumental jam at a Dead show, was more a sweet pop tune emphasizing the folky vocals. "West LA Fadeaway," a surprise entry, had a sly groove and found Haynes' band nicely playing off the brass.
The PSO were most engaged with the more elaborate arrangements that added color to the slow, beautiful "Morning Dew" and "Days Between," where the vocals truly shined.
Of course, the moment everyone was waiting for was "Terrapin Station," the Dead's orchestral showpiece, and it arrived after Sipe's foray into a mini "Drums/Space" with the PSO's timpanist.
They skipped the middle section of the 16-minute suite, so it felt choppy, but "Terrapin" was still a majestic work that got the PSO as close as it would get to classical music. The orchestra members seemed amused by the raucous ovation (not to mention the aisle dancers).
Haynes reached into his own catalog for "Patchwork Quilt" before bringing the concert to a gentle close with "China Doll," nearly matching the tenderness of Garcia's vocal.
"What an honor it was to be asked to do this," the guitarist said, noting that the invitation came from the Jerry Garcia Foundation. "What a complete honor," he added, "to play with the Pittsburgh Symphony."
It was an honor to watch it, too. Opportunities to tap into the genius of Garcia and enjoy the work of the Dead live are becoming more rare. This one was truly special.
Now, who's going to Philadelphia?
To get a musician's perspective, I asked violinist Alison Fujito, who has been a member of the PSO since 1987, about the pieces.
She said, "As back-up arrangements go, they're quite decent --challenging enough to be interesting, but clearly written by someone who knows the limits of the instrument. Sometimes we get arrangements that are nothing but whole notes -- I guess the arranger figured nobody would hear us anyway? Sometimes we get things that are totally impossible to play, and we wonder what instrument they were thinking about. But these parts are pretty good.
As for the people dancing in the aisles, she said, "???I suggested to my stand partner that some of us should get up and dance, too, but we didn't."
Imagine the crowd reaction if they had!
SET 1: Dark Star intro > Bird Song Crazy Fingers Scarlet Begonias Shakedown Street China Cat Sunflower Morning Dew
SET 2 Mission In The Rain tease High Time Uncle John's Band West LA Fadeaway Days Between Lady With A Fan > End of Terrapin Station > Slipknot! > End of Terrapin Station Patchwork Quilt China Doll
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.